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UNB prof seeks to level the playing field in video games for out-of-touch parents

A computer science professor at the University of New Brunswick is trying to even the playing field in the world of video games through his research.

The idea began when Scott Bateman saw the skill gaps when it came to video games within his own family

Scott Bateman said research "player balancing" has followed him all throughout his academic career and across a number of universities. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

A computer science professor at the University of New Brunswick is trying to strengthen the bonds between parents and children by studying modifications used to balance the playing fields in video games.

Scott Bateman, a self-described nerd, said he first noticed the difference in skill-levels between him and his wife.

He discovered he always came out on top, which wasn't fun for either of them.

"She had better things to do growing up than I did," said Bateman, the director of the school's Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

Now a father of three, he's discovered he's the one being left in the virtual dust by his children.

Harder to bond with children as games become more technical

While the days of a child and parent playing catch outside are by no means gone, Bateman said today's games are increasingly technical. It can be hard for some parents to bond with their children in the games they're playing.

That's why Bateman has been studying this phenomenon while tinkering with a handful of video games to see what he can do to tighten the scores. He calls these changes "player balancing."

"Now, when I play with [my children], I can save a little face," he said. "I'm not just the old dad that's out of touch."

He said the first game he tested was the 1984 classic, Duck Hunt, a simple shooting game which was paired with the original Super Mario Bros.

He adjusted it to make it simpler for the inexperienced player to hit the waterfowl, while making it a little tougher for the skilled player to aim.

It's a lot like bumpers in bowling, Bateman said, except you can't see the handicap.

"You can bend the rules in lots of different ways," he said.
The 1984 classic Duck Hunt was one of the first games Scott Bateman decided to tweak. (Joseph Tunney/CBC)

Broader implications to be had

Bateman and his team were the first to study how these tweaks affect players' behaviours and experiences. And while it started by seeing the gaps within his own family, it has broader implications.

"My close collaborator in engineering, Erik Scheme, was just discussing this research on my behalf with folks at the Stan Cassidy Rehab Centre [in Fredericton]," the professor wrote in a follow-up email.  

"They are keen on working with us to look at how we can do game balancing between players when one person has a difference in ability, because of injury or other conditions [like a stroke]."

Not only do these adjustments allow two players to compete, he said the closer scores mean that the two players enjoy the experience more.

"[And] what's interesting about human psychology is [the unskilled player] still takes a bit of the credit, even if the game's been helping them," he said. "It's called attribution theory."

But Bateman can't take the credit for the idea completely.

Balancing the competition is something major game developers have tried to accomplish since the early days of video games.  

And the research is ongoing, he said, and probably will always continue as the medium evolves and new types of games emerge.

Still, he aims to have his work in the digital world change things in the real world.

One example of that is his research is used by Canadian game developers looking to provide fairness for customers of all sorts. 

"We interact with technology every day," Bateman said. "We should think about how these interactions can be improved."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story referred to the project as the Human Interaction Computer Lab, when it is in fact called the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. In addition, Mr. Bateman has three, not two, children.
    Dec 16, 2017 11:25 AM AT